Performance artist Marina Abramovic’s retrospective collection, “The Artist is Present,” debuted in March 2010 at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Comprised of over fifty pieces of her work from the last forty years, the exhibition calls attention to the divide between artist and audience, observer and participant, and repetition and stillness. Using the human body as a medium, Abramovic redefines the concept of interactive exhibition. She incorporates visitations of her earlier works by employing live artists to reperform pieces from her past throughout the sixth floor of the museum. Perhaps in part to ensure that their performances are executed accurately, Abramovic herself nests four floors down in her headline exhibition also entitled “The Artist is Present,” a performance piece where she sits silently in a chair for seven hundred and thirty-six hours, over a span of three months. Abramovic communicates her intention to interact with the audience by inviting them to get involved with her art, creating a unique dynamic where museum visitors are given the choice to stand and watch, or become fully immersed.
A quick glimpse into the entrance hall of Abramovic’s sixth-floor collection is noteworthy, if nothing else, for its eye-catching strangeness. Nude performers are scattered throughout, some tied together, some hanging grotesquely from the walls, and one lying underneath a skeleton. The energy Abramovic contributed to her original pieces, however, is not lost in the reperformances, as the artists she recruited to reenact her art seem to thoroughly mirror her original artistic intentions. Silent and in a stationary position, each performer channels Abramovic’s powerful mastery of presence. The discipline reflected in their stillness—which lasts for hours on end—serves as a stark contrast to the busyness of the exhibit’s Manhattan surroundings, emphasizing the different speeds at which people move in New York.
In perhaps the most powerful of these reperformances—“Imponderabilia”—a male and female performer stand naked in a doorway in the museum, close enough to one another so that each museum visitor cannot pass without brushing up against both bodies. Among other objectives, one of Abramovic’s clever goals in this piece is to observe which performer each passing visitor chooses to face as they move sideways through the small space between them. In the original 1977 performance, museum goers were forced to exit through “Imponderabilia,” sparking conversation and ultimately leading to the interruption and termination of the performance by Bolognese police (Biesenbach, 100). However, against Abramovic’s wishes, the Museum of Modern Art provided an alternative space for visitors to pass through the exhibition without having to maneuver through the reenactment of “Imponderabilia.” This decision creates a filter between those willing to be probed by Abramovic’s art, and those who would rather not fully involve themselves. For those who do participate, however, the second it takes for each visitor to edge through the space between the bodies creates an important body-to-body exchange: the sense of touch, of flesh rubbed against fabric, pushes each visitor through the textured plasma of “Imponderabilia,” and is a catalyst for better understanding Abramovic’s art as a whole. The ability for this piece to make its audience instantly uncomfortable yet inquisitive too, speaks to the power of Abramovic’s skill with arrangement. Had the doorways been placed anywhere else, or the performers stood any further apart, the visitor would not have felt the full effect of discomfort and envelopment in Abramovic’s work.
While waiting to pass through, “Imponderabilia,” the viewer will also be treated, unintended by Abramovic, to extremely long lines. One bittersweet aspect of the exhibit is that there are hundreds of museum visitors crowding its rooms, which is both a testament to Abramovic’s appeal and a failure on the museum’s part to determine an appropriate capacity for the exhibit. The strong public interest in “The Artist is Present” likely draws from the New Yorker’s memories of Abramovic’s past shows in the city. The last time Abramovic held an exhibit in a New York museum, she cut into her stomach with a razor blade before hundreds of people in a 2005 collection entitled “Seven Easy Pieces” at the Guggenheim Museum. This time, using a more subtle focal piece, Abramovic’s highlight performance in the exhibition is “The Artist is Present,” where she sits silent and unmoving for the duration of the museum’s opening hours at a chair behind a table, gazing ahead. An empty chair placed across from her invites museum visitors to sit, one at a time for however long they wish, and stare back into the eyes of the artist.
For ten hours at a time, across seventy-seven days, Abramovic will sit waiting. In an interview, Abramovic explains the simplicity of the piece, saying: “The more I think about energy, the simpler my art becomes, because it is just about pure presence” (Thurman, 24). A placard on the wall informs the audience that “The Artist is Present” is actually a restructured form of “The Nightsea Crossing,” a piece performed intermittently between 1981-1989 by Abramovic and her former lover and collaborator Frank “Ulay” Laysiepen, a man whom she credits as the lover of her life. In “The Nightsea Crossing,” Abramovic and Ulay sat in chairs opposite each other at a table, staring into each other’s eyes for days at a time. The piece was forced to a conclusion when Ulay, frustrated with the dedication Abramovic directed toward her art rather than himself, abandoned her after a performance in China, ending their relationship of twelve years (Biesenbach, 138).
The viewer’s knowledge of the price Abramovic paid for her art adds a different element to the performance. Instead of an immobile figure, Abramovic appears defeated—an image of someone waiting for a date at a café, staring into an empty chair and knowing that she has been misled. The authority that Abramovic commands across the room shifts to include a sense of passivity gazing at whomever the audience places before her. The four ingredients of “The Artist is Present”—two chairs, a table, and a sixty-four-year-old woman—serve as the only artworks displayed in the Donald B. and Catherine C. Marron Atrium, which extends across almost the entire second floor of the museum. One must wonder if the added presence of an empty chair across from her was intended by Abramovic as a space for the public to occupy, or if it simply pays tribute to her loss of Ulay. The weight of the three-month performance, coupled with the simplicity of the visual frame of the piece, delivers a powerful message to the viewer that Abramovic has a vision unlike any other artist. Each piece in the museum, particularly “The Artist is Present,” requires negotiation and exchange on the viewer’s part to take something from the art but leave something of his own behind. As each viewer sits in the empty chair, as though instructed to do so by Abramovic herself, the participant leaves an impression not only on the viewing audience but on Abramovic, who stares back, over the course of three months, into the eyes of strangers.
“The Artist is Present” highlights Abramovic’s uncanny ability to poke and prod at the human psyche. There are no instructions telling the viewers to sit in the chair or pass through “Imponderabilia,” yet the viewer understands without instruction, to sit and mirror Abramovic’s posture and expression, to slip between the nude couple in the doorway. Abramovic’s collection documents the compelling nature of performance art, and incites her audience to commit more fully to the occupations of their everyday experiences—to understand that sitting is not merely sitting, and an empty chair beyond being just another empty chair—is an invitation, too.
Biesenbach, Klaus. Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present. New York: The Museum of
Modern Art, 2010. Print.
Thurman, Judith. “Walking Through Walls: Profiles.” New Yorker. 8 Mar. 2010: 24. Print.